Organizing Your Home Base, Desk, Office, Computer Backups, Personal Library (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Organizing Your Home Base[edit | edit source]

Few amateur researchers have the luxury of a whole room to set aside as a genealogical office or library. Most of us start out on the kitchen table with a box stored in a closet or under the bed. But the needs for storage space, a permanent family history desk, not to mention time and some peace and quiet, soon grow.

There are naturally benefits to consolidation of all your genealogy materials into one location. This section will deal with those items you will need close at hand as ‘desk needs’, and other items as ‘office needs’. The principle of storing something where you use it seems to work best.

At Your Desk[edit | edit source]

The most-used items are kept within arm’s reach, thus at my desk I keep these items:

  • Computer and its peripherals, computer manuals, labels, empty CDs/DVDs, most-used CD indexes.
  • Reading lights, magnifying light, stapler, tape, hole puncher, pens, several paperweights.
  • Calendar, telephone, phone books, lots of bookmarks, post-it notes, envelopes (small and business sizes of white and airmail), stamps, letter-scale and post office rates, horizontal files for paper (new white bond, used white, used yellow, used other colours), a copy of all local library and FHS brochures.
  • Useful general books, mainly How-To and reference materials, and subject binders.
  • Vertical slots for data arriving e.g. for my own family, and my 5 One-Name Studies, one for urgent pending projects such as letters awaiting sterling money orders before mailing, slots with a file pocket for each library I visit containing items to take there (notices, donations, items for people).
  • Horizontal files for ‘jobs’ and ‘filing’—done in odd moments and pile kept to a minimum.
  • My Desk Reference File—a simple duotang with my pedigree chart, lists of ancestral names and places, list of FHSs of which I am a member with my # and renewal dates, plus several small ‘reminder notes’ such as exact dates of British Censuses, roman numerals, temple codes and so forth.

In Your Office[edit | edit source]

Elsewhere in your office, keep the items that you don’t use so often, or don’t need at your desk. Filing cabinets containing:

  • Supplies and forms
  • FHS information
  • Files of first transcripts of parish registers, censuses read
  • Files for Record Agents used
  • Family Files (or binders)

Note on Computer Back-ups[edit | edit source]

Experienced users save their work regularly, say every 15 minutes, and make a complete back-up of new work every day. Occasionally a computer back-up will malfunction and today’s back-up will be a failure, to which the answer is multiple, dated, rotating back-ups. Most experts recommend keeping several back-ups on devices such as a portable drive, CD/DVD, or flash drive. You may also want to keep a bakup online through a paid backup website service or through a means of cloud computing like Dropbox. Sometimes corruption problems do not become apparent for a long time, and all of your multiple disks will by then have corrupt data. This can be disastrous for those with large files of genealogy. If you don’t want to have to type it all in again then the safeguard here is to make a permanent back-up every so often and never replace it. How does this work for the average family historian?

Absolutely Safe Back-up Scheme for Family History Data

P = Permanent, stored off-site
Disk A

Disk B

Disk C


Disk P1 – put in permanent storage
Re-use Disk A

Re-use Disk B

Re-use Disk C


Disk P2 – put in permanent storage
Re-use Disk A

Re-use Disk B

Re-use Disk C


Disk P3 – put in permanent storage

Back-up disks A, B and C would be stored away from your computer. If you have a break-in the thieves would likely take your disks as well as your computer equipment if they are easily found nearby.

The permanent disks would be stored off-site, for example in your bank deposit box, an office, or at a friend or relative’s house. They are a permanent record of your data as of that date and never get replaced. Thus if you encounter a long-standing problem you will have copies of your data for every 4th time you added something and would be able to recoup the majority of your work.

With this system you will have three sites where your work is stored: in your computer, somewhere else in your residence not near your computer, and one set away from home. Thus you are secure from loss. The exact number of rotating disks doesn’t matter—businesses often have one for each day of the week. Also, some folks make a permanent back-up disk daily.

Building a Basic Library[edit | edit source]

My own library fulfills my needs as the family historian of my own family, as a professional and as a One Name student. It is therefore larger than most, but contains the same kinds of materials, just more of each. A library of any size should be organized so that any book or item is instantly accessible. Sections I use include:

  • How-To and Reference books on genealogy and related subjects

  • Topographical books. I organize mine into country and county sections

  • Binders containing papers and leaflets for each geographical area of interest. The binder sections I have found useful are: Archives, Indexes, Maps, Places, and Sources for each county of England.

  • Occupations
  • Family History Society journals. After I have read and processed them they get filed in magazine boxes lined across the top of my bookcases.
  • Maps and atlases. My maps are stored in number order in their sets in labelled shoe boxes. Each set has at the front or side an overall map highlighted with the ones that I have. For a map in frequent use consider making a photocopy and laminating it to prevent wear on the original.
  • Computer manuals and instructions for your machines and indexes
  • Photography and postcards
  • Dictionaries
  • My own scrapbooks, photo albums, slide collection, and postcard collection
  • History and Biography books
  • Names including surnames, first names, place names plus
  • Genealogical Directories

Building a good family history library will involve many visits to second hand book stores and library discard sales. Go prepared with a list of what you have and what you need. Examples of these are shown in Charts 12 to 14.

My Library Collection: Example of Listing

Book of British Villages, Book of British Towns, Road Book of Scotland, Ireland.
Apprentices – SoG
Vols. 1- 25.
Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Latin, Norwegian, Old English, Portuguese, Russian, Scots Gaelic, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Welsh.
Highways and Byways
All EXCEPT Beds, C.I., Cheshire, Durham, Essex, Hunts, IOM, Lancs, Northants, Rutland, Salop, Worcs.
Kings England
All including Enchanted Land.
Victorian Photobooks
Beds, Bexley, Cornwall, Country Camera by Winter, Cumbs, Essex, Hants, Hereford, Herts, Kent, Lakes, Mddx, Norfolk, Salop, Somerset, Staffs, Suffolk, Sry, Ssx, Warks, Westmorland; Scotland, Lowlands, Highlands; Dublin.
Chiltern Villages by Burden, A Window on Winslow.
Story of IOM by Airne (2 vols.), Our Heritage (old postcards.)
Illustrated Lark Rise to Candleford, Clarendon Guide to Oxford.

My Map Collection: Example of Listing

Barts ½” (blue) All
O.S. 1” (Red) Eng and Scot 1-4 (blue), 85, 88, 107-8, 112, 116, 119, 131, 134, 136, 142-4, 147-8, 153, 156-7, 159, 163-166, 169, 170-173, 175-184, 186, 188, 190.

Local Histories Needed

Aberdeenshire Cruden, Ellon, Logie Buchan, Old Deer.
Devon Buckland Filleigh, Crediton, East Budleigh, Exbourne, Hatherleigh, Jacobstowe, Okehampton, Petrockstowe.
Dorset Bridport.
Norfolk Dereham, Kings Lynn.

A more extensive treatment of the subject of building a personal library can be found in the Heritage Series book, Organizing a Genealogy Library.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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